There's a film festival taking place somewhere in the world just about every week now, but three monumental events still tower over the rest: Cannes, Sundance and Toronto. You could make the case that Toronto, in the overtly tasteful way that it ushers in the awards season, has in recent years trumped the other two – at least, in terms of sheer media influence. From The Descendants to Moneyball to Silver Linings Playbook to 12 Years a Slave to Gravity, Toronto is the festival that, more than any other, helps to launch the very idea of mainstream quality movies into orbit.
Given that, a funny thing happened at Toronto this year. Yes, it showcased some highly accomplished and celebrated awards-bait contenders, like Foxcatcher and Rosewater and Wild. But none of those carried the weight of awards inevitability the way that, say, 12 Years a Slave did last year. They were good films, but they weren't quintessential awards movies. For that, you had to seek out a pair of earnest and rather genteel biopics, each so fundamentally old-fashioned that they seemed to have come out of a time warp.
The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who led the team that cracked the Enigma Code during World War II. The Theory of Everything dramatises the life of Stephen Hawking, the physicist who became the globally popular bard of black holes, despite the fact – or, to a degree, because of it – that he was crippled by the ravages of Lou Gehrig's disease. Despite some artful qualities, both these films could have been dreamed up by a computer programmed to win awards. Each one has an excruciatingly civilised British hero who's a crowd-pleasing genius, and whose brilliance is bedeviled by a dramatic affliction: in Turing's case, he's struggling to live in secret to evade persecution for his homosexuality; in Hawking's case, he's trying to let the power of his mind outrace the slow decline of his body. By the end of each film, you practically want to stand up and shout, "Bravely done, boys! Bravely done!"
Man of many masks
As an actor, Benedict Cumberbatch can do just about anything, but even after playing a le Carré spy, a slave master, a Star Trek villain and Julian Assange, he may never have had a role that fits him with the emotionally tailored perfection of Alan Turing. It's at the start of World War II when Turing, tweedy yet becalmed, is asked to join a select team of mathematical eggheads tasked with decoding the cryptographic system the Nazis are using to send their military messages. The British possess a stolen Enigma machine, which means that they can receive the daily Nazi missives in coded form; they just can't read them.
It's the starting point for what sounds like a crackerjack puzzle-thriller. Except that once the movie settles into the grand shadowy confines of Bletchley Park, the site of the UK’s Government Code and Cypher School, it's a little like watching the Masterpiece Theatre version of the Manhattan Project. What seizes us, more than the actual breaking of the code (since, to be honest, it's almost impossible to understand how that was done), is Turing's peculiar personality – his mixture of decency and diffidence, his complete (and therefore hilarious) inability to tell a joke and the obsessive way that he rouses himself from his academic civility to do whatever it takes. That means, early on, sneaking a message to Winston Churchill – that's how he wins the right to lead the team – or deciding that instead of sitting around and trying to decipher messages, he's going to build a machine to do it for him. A machine that will one day be known as a computer.
The key members of Turing's team, played by the genial and cutting Matthew Goode and the radiantly staunch Keira Knightley, think that Turing is an anti-social head case. The amazingly dry wit in Cumberbatch's performance cues us to see how Turing, in his repressive dolefulness, is in fact driven solely by a desire to save lives and win the war. That he's willing to be a monomaniac about it is the measure of his humanity.
Far more dramatic than the deciphering of the code is the moment when Turing figures out that they’ll have to keep the fact that they've cracked the code a secret. Because if they overplay their hand, the Nazis will figure out that they've cracked it. And so Turing devises a statistical system that will balance how many secrets they can use (without giving the game away) and how many Allied casualties they can stand. It's realpolitik of an unimaginable order, and the film's implication is that only a man like Turing, who hid his sexuality as if his life depended on it (which perhaps it did), could have been on such intimate terms with the creativity of secrecy. What he himself viewed as his ‘defect’ becomes, in fact, the cornerstone of his wartime heroism. This is a very clandestine way to make a liberal message movie, but it works. You could almost say that it serves up Oscar bait in code.
Ready for his close-up
In The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne seems like he was put on earth to play Stephen Hawking. First he is a gawkishly charming Oxford grad student in physics, the kind of guy who scrawls out the perfect answers to his professor's brain-teaser questions on a train schedule right before class. And then, after he's diagnosed with motor-neurone disease, as the audacious genius of space-time theory whose mind only grows more infinite as his body crumples up, his head hanging off his neck, his limbs twisted and useless, his mouth contorting itself around the words (and that's when he can still speak). This is acting out of the My Left Foot handbook, except that where Daniel Day-Lewis twisted his virtuosity over a bottomless pit of passion and rage, Redmayne rarely deviates from Hawking's whimsical quizzicality. It's a less wrenching, more user-friendly tour de force.
Fortunately for Hawking, Jane (Felicity Jones), a comely, devoted fellow student, has fallen for his brain, and for his kindness; she marries him, gives him children, and (mostly) stands by him. That they have an active sex life is treated with a happy wink. It's the film's slightly funny way of saying, "You don't need to feel sorry for Stephen Hawking." I just wish that the movie allowed us to feel our way into his mind more. Not his theories, which shift back and forth with the wind: the universe is expanding, then it's contracting, then time has an end, then it's infinite – and it is all a great big metaphor for... love (or something). No, I wish that Hawking's story had been made much more intensely personal and lacerating. When you watch The Theory of Everything, you know that Stephen Hawking exists – and Redmayne's inspired mimicry nails him – but you also feel that if he didn't, a movie like this one would have had to invent him.
The Imitation Game: ★★★★☆
The Theory of Everything: ★★★☆☆
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us onTwitter.